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Film Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Avengers Age of Ultron★★☆☆

It may only be April, but the release of something this colossal generally signifies the start of the summer blockbuster season. For the sake of large-budget Hollywood cinema, I hope it doesn’t represent the best it has to offer.

Marvel’s Avengers have once again assembled and the result is shaky, muddled, yawn-inducing and rather obnoxiously smug. The action is, at times, suitably epic, but the movie feels like a catalogue of set-pieces, like a vanity-reel shown at a fan convention. In between these set-pieces we get the now inevitable and ever more tiresome Superhero-banter (I mean banter here as the jokey exchange of teasing remarks rather than anything similar to the disturbing Dapper Laughs variety). The whole thing feels very unstable.

Superhero films – particularly, of late, those from the Marvel stable – have always had the challenge of catering for a mass market of non-graphic novel/comic book readers whilst also trying not to patronise and overly simplify content for the die-hard fans. It’s a difficult juggling act for writers and directors to perform, one that may not be very conducive to producing great material. I’m not saying all superhero films are pre-destined to be narratively troubled (there is a handful – such as Captain America: The First Avenger and both Thor movies who handle this superbly). However, when you have so many key characters, so much back-story and mythology and hints at things to come, it is hardly surprising it starts to chafe against its own handicaps.

Age of Ultron, in very crude, simplified, certainly not fan-friendly language, involves Iron Man and Hulk developing an artificial intelligence programme that takes over. The Avengers fight to try and stop it. There is a lot more going on than this and at times the many plot strands risk making the larger picture almost impenetrable, but that gives you the general idea. Narrative coherence, though valiantly attempted by director Joss Whedon, is not always achieved.

As I have mentioned before, the jokey, banter-ish side of the Marvel films has long been one of its weaknesses, in my opinion. Though I have never been an evangelist for Christopher Nolan’s pretentious and very right-wing Batman films, at least he took himself seriously and attempted to make a compelling drama out of something which could, in the wrong hands, be inherently ridiculous. Avengers: Age of Ultron is ridiculous, which isn’t a problem in itself, but the thick layer of lazy gags and ‘witty’ asides (including a male character landing his face in Scarlett Johansson's breasts and innuendos about Jeremy Renner's character not being able to achieve an erection) feels almost like a distraction technique. It’s also somewhat uneasy to see quite hard-hitting and intense evocations of the 9/11 attacks on New York, with images of human suffering and trauma, intercut with the flippant dialogue of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man.

The plot predictably builds to a disaster-porn heavy finale, where a city is utterly destroyed and we’re encouraged to clap along as our band of heroes saves the day. During this cacophony of explosions and wisecracks, Whedon occasionally offers us moments that demonstrate what a really interesting filmmaker he can be. He plays with sound, manipulates the viewer’s understanding of the visual landscape, and inverts the more operatic aspects of Danny Elfman’s score with what is being shown onscreen. When you see these moments, hopefully you’ll know what I mean. They suggest a yearning for creativity, freedom and cinematic intelligence that has been distinctly lacking in the last couple of Marvel films. If only these glimmers of truly interesting filmmaking were allowed to reign free. Then we might see a mixture of the sincerity of Nolan mixed with the vibrant energy Whedon brings to the table. Now that really would be a film worth seeing.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), directed by Joss Whedon, is released in UK cinemas by Walt Disney Studios on 23rd April, Certificate 12A. Watch a trailer below:

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